Your baby's sleep - expert dossier

Sleep disorders in young children, by Dr. Lyliane Nemet-Pier, clinical psychologist.

When can a young child be said to be suffering from a sleep disorder?

"We start using the term "sleep disorder" at around the age of 6 months if the problems occur every day and night, and especially when the parents are no longer able to bear it. A sleep disorder therefore depends on the tolerance of the parents – because it is not really a major problem for the child.

Up until the age of 6 months, a baby is only really suffering from the sleep disorder if they do not sleep at all, or for no than 15 minutes at a time, or if they are unable to sleep through a number of sleep cycles in sequence."


What psychological sleep disorders do children suffer from and what are their causes?

"The most common disorders are difficulties in falling asleep and waking up many times during the night, after which the child is unable to go back to sleep by themselves It can sometimes be difficult to determine the causes – each case is specific.

It may be a child-rearing problem (a child who is largely left to do whatever they want during the day is suddenly forced to go to bed, used to sleeping cradled in someone's arms with a pacifier or bottle), the behaviour of the parents who are afraid that their baby will die or run to them at the slightest cry (problem during pregnancy, traumatic separation, feeling of guilt or depression), psychological changes in the environment (problems in the relationship, redundancy, death in the family, moving house or change in childcare arrangements, etc.). Or they could be due to a lack of emotional affection towards child, who does not see his parents enough during the day to have a peaceful night's rest. Or, if they appear in the Oedipal phase, they can be due to the jealousy of the child, who cannot stand his parents being together when they go to bed.

Night terrors are much less common. They may be due to psychological factors and can occur in relatively introverted children who find it hard to express what they feel during the day - especially emotions such as aggressiveness of jealousy towards a little brother who has just been born, for example.

They must not be confused with nightmares, which are completely normal and form part of a child's psychological development and the difficulties they encounter. In the case of night terrors, there is no need to wake (…) or console the child as they are fast asleep and unable to hear any soothing words. But as far as nightmares are concerned, they really do need to be consoled. If night terrors or nightmares occur too frequently, you should take your child to a psychologist."


How can these sleep disorders be cured?

“First of all, you must teach your baby to be on their own or play by themselves at certain times of the day. By learning how to be alone for a few minutes, then for increasingly long periods during the day, they'll be able to remain alone in their beds without any anxiety. They also need to learn and develop ways (thumb sucking, a security blanket or adopting a different position) for calming themselves down on their own and falling asleep without their parents' help. This way, when they wake up in the middle of the night, they will be able to fall asleep again on their own. If a major event occurs which affects close friends or family, you should talk to your child or baby about it so that they don't feel responsible for their parents' unhappiness. If sleeping disorders continue, take your child to a specialist psychologist."


For more information

Moi, la nuit, je fais jamais dodo… (“I never sleep at night”), by Lyliane Nemet-Pier. Published by Fleurus, 2000.


Author's biography

Lyliane Nemet-Pier is a psychoanalyst and clinical psychologist. She has an independent practice and gives external consultations in general paediatrics at the Robert-Debré hospital in Paris.



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